Among the most important attributes in a goaltender’s make-up are thick skin and an ability to bounce back from bad beats and less than glorious goals. So it was refreshing to hear 21-year-old Caps netminder Semyon Varlamov say that he spent precisely none of his summer dwelling upon Washington’s one-sided Game 7 setback at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinal series last May.
“I didn’t think about it,” says Varlamov, speaking through interpreter Dmitry Chesnokov. “When the game was over I just tried to get away from hockey. I tried to relax and forget it. I spent three months relaxing and now I’m ready to go again.”
Varlamov and fellow 2006 draftee Michal Neuvirth are two of the three (along with 2008 draftee Braden Holtby) netminders minding the twine at the Caps rookie training camp this week at Kettler. The fates of the two have been intertwined since that summer day in Vancouver some three years ago when the Capitals chose Varlamov in the first round (23rd overall) and Neuvirth in the second round (34th).
Born just weeks apart in the spring of 1988, both European goaltenders began their North American pro careers last fall. Having played professionally in his native Russia while Neuvirth played junior hockey in Canada, Varlamov had and still retains a bit of a professional head start on Neuvirth. Both goalies are coming off splendid postseason performances in 2008-09. Varlamov backstopped the Caps to within a win of the Eastern Conference finals while Neuvirth helped the Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup title, earning playoff MVP honors in the process.
With the young netminding tandem, Washington figures to have a bright future in goal. Including playoff games, Varlamov Neuvirth, veteran Jose Theodore and first-year pro Holtby all won 30-plus games last season.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau proclaimed a few weeks ago that Theodore was the team’s No. 1 goaltender heading into the 2009-10 campaign. While some believe the No. 1 job should belong to Varlamov based on his postseason performance, Theodore won 32 games for the Capitals last season and has more than 200 victories for his NHL career. Few can conceive of Varlamov being any lower then second on Washington’s goaltending depth chart, but the young Russian is not taking anything for granted this fall.
“Right now I am not No. 1 or No. 2,” says Varlamov. “We have a lot of young goalies fighting for the spot. You can’t even say right now that I am one of the goalies on the first team.”
Varlamov made his NHL debut last Dec. 13, defeating the Canadiens by a slim 2-1 margin in Montreal before a sold out Bell Centre crowd and a Hockey Night in Canada audience. In doing so, Varlamov became the youngest Russian-born goaltender to start in the NHL and the first goalie in the league in more than 30 years to win his NHL debut in Montreal.
Varlamov went 4-0-1 in six regular season appearances with the Caps last season. After Theodore dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series to the New York Rangers, Boudreau tabbed Varlamov to start Game 2. It would be the first of 13 consecutive starts for the young Russian, who celebrated his 21st birthday in the midst of that run.
The athletic Varlamov allowed just seven goals in six games over the remainder of the Rangers series, pitching a pair of shutouts in the process. In winning the first two games of the Pittsburgh series, Varlamov became the first Caps goaltender ever to notch five consecutive victories in Stanley Cup play. He found the going a bit more treacherous against Pittsburgh thereafter, posting an .883 save pct. over the final five games of the playoff run.
Varlamov figures prominently in Washington’s future plans, so much so that the Caps replaced retiring goalie coach Dave Prior with Russian-speaking Arturs Irbe. In the first two days of camp, Irbe has been hands-on with each of the Caps’ three young goaltenders, and that suits Varlamov.
“It is a positive for me because I understand him 100%,” says the promising goaltender. “I have understood [Irbe] really well from day one. We’ve got a good connection going. He gives me advice on every shot and every save I have to make. It’s really good.”
Varlamov’s off-the-charts athleticism is what drew the Caps to him in the first place. That athleticism, his steely disposition that belies his youthfulness and a sharp glove hand have put him on the fast track to the top spot in Washington. If there is a flaw in his game thus far in his young career, it has been health. Varlamov missed a couple long stretches of last season with AHL Hershey because of varied lower body injuries.
“I try to pay more attention to it now,” he says. “I do exercises on my lower body after each practice to make sure that I avoid those types of injuries.”
Varlamov will vie with Theodore for the top spot this fall and possibly throughout the 2009-10 season. He believes his solid first season in North America will serve as a strong springboard to the rest of his career, and he believes himself capable of logging 60 starts or more in the NHL.
“I think I got much stronger compared to last year, physically,” says Varlamov. “Right now I know how to get myself ready for games. Maybe last year it wasn’t such. I didn’t really know how to get myself ready for games, but now I’m better at it and I know how to do it. Two years ago [in Russia], I actually played 60 games in the season. I know that the schedule wasn’t as tough as it is here, but I still think that I am ready.”
And just like he shakes off the odd bad goal, Varlamov brushed aside Boudreau’s proclamation that Theodore goes into camp as the team’s No. 1 netminder.
“I took it really well and [was] calm,” says Varlamov. “I know that [Theodore] is the No. 1 and I am No. 2 right now. What I need to do is play really well and earn that spot, the top spot during the preseason games. Bruce told me last year when the season was over that I would have to earn it and I’m ready for it.”